****2015 RONE Award Honorable Mention, Historical Post-Medieval****
Bullets, blades, and incendiary bombs—Major Steven Beauverde, the latest Earl of Hackwell, belongs in that world, and is determined to get back to it. His brother’s murder has forced Steven out of the army and into the title, but he has no interest in being the Earl, and worse, no idea how to salvage the depleted estate. A rumor that his brother had a son by a woman who may be a) the murderer, and b) his brother’s wife, sets Steven on a mission to find her, the boy, and—Steven ardently hopes—proof of a secret marriage that will set Steven free.
Annabelle Harris is a country heiress and a confirmed spinster resettled in London to find her sister, the mistress to the Earl of Hackwell. While she searches, she fills her home with orphans and street urchins. When the Earl is murdered, Annabelle’s sister thrusts the Earl’s illegitimate child into Annabelle’s care and disappears. Now, with suspicion pointing at her sister, Annabelle has begun a new quest—to find her sibling and clear her name.
When their paths converge, the reluctant Earl and the determined spinster find themselves rethinking their goals, and stepping up to fight back when the real murderer shows up.
Surprise pinned Annabelle to the cracked leather seat of the carriage and finally her heart restarted and picked up its pounding.
“Good evening, my lady.” Lord Hackwell flashed her a wide, easy smile that made his face glow like a boy who had pulled a very fast one.
The shock eased. She realized she felt not one whit of fear.
“Is this an abduction, Lord Hackwell? I have never been abducted before. Shall I scream with alarm? Do you mean to harm me?”
His smile disappeared and his face grew too serious. “I mean to protect you, Miss Harris. This is an escort. I mean to see that you return home unharmed.”
“I see. Unharmed, except for the besmirching of my reputation. Shall we appear in the scandal sheets tomorrow, do you suppose?”
“In this bourgeois neighborhood? I think not. Unless, the man who helped you into the hackney is someone of interest?”READ MORE
Oh, he was prying, and she was so tempted to lead him on. But of course, she had Robby to think about. “Very much so. He is my solicitor. He asked me to dinner to counterbalance his wife’s inquisitive aunt who is visiting from the country, and curious about all things criminal, political, and financial. The poor man has difficulty balancing his client’s confidentiality with his need to be polite to his children’s future benefactress. She is wealthy, I believe.”
“So he set her on you. And how did you maintain your secrets, Miss Harris?”
“We spoke of my home.”
A ribbon of sensation uncurled in her secret places. The space between her and Lord Hackwell had shrunk, and his dark eyes showed more than an interest in her pedigree. Her nerves tingled with the anticipated pleasure of a repeat of the earlier kiss.
I must not.
“Yorkshire,” she said, as blandly as possible. “I grew up on a good-sized estate there.”
“Do you plan to take Robby there?”
Sudden tears pricked her eyes and she turned quickly to the window. Robby and Thomas would have loved Ryeland. With acres and acres of freedom and kind neighbors, they could have played for hours and had adventures that didn’t involve cutpurses and the Watch.
“No, Lord Hackwell. My family home was entailed. The cousin who inherited, I’ve only met once, at my father’s funeral.” And his invitation to linger had been merely perfunctory. Besides, staying in the district of her childhood would beg questions about Veronica.
“So you had no brothers. Is your mother living?”
He hadn’t asked about sisters. That was curious. Perhaps he suspected her relationship with Miss Miller was more than a friendship, and was coming to the question, inch by torturing inch.
“You are dancing again, Lord Hackwell. It is ever so tiresome. Let us get you to the facts. I am the eldest surviving child of Edward Harris, who died two years ago. I had a brother, who died many years before. I have a younger sister who has found a position and made a life with a distant cousin in Scotland. My mother has been gone since I was eighteen. I am twenty-seven years old now. I never had a coming out, because my father took ill, and needed me to manage the estate.”
His eyes widened and he went very still, examining her. The air around them seemed charged with a kind of explosive tension.
Oh heavens. He was finding fault with the country spinster. The gown was from her mourning two years previous, outdated of course, and she felt her hair slipping again, and she’d never been one to effect powders and pigments. “Yes. Well—”
“You managed an estate?”
“Astonishing, isn’t it?” She waved a gloved hand in the air, and he captured it.
He dropped a kiss on her knuckle. “And you managed the household also?”
“Yes, of course.”
“And you don’t care for dancing?”
“I enjoy dancing very much, though my experience is limited to our local assembly. I have not been to a ball in so many ages, and never a town ball.”
She could only laugh at that and shake her head. She receive a voucher for Almack’s? Ridiculous.
“No waltzing, Miss Harris?” His manner remained intense.
“Sadly, no, Lord Hackwell, I have never waltzed.”
He straightened in his seat and his eyes looked ahead. “But you have counted ploughs,” he said thoughtfully.
Tears pricked again, suddenly and unexpectedly. What a dismal woman she was. Too plain, too proper, too practical. Alone in a closed hackney with a devastatingly handsome man, and they were talking about farm equipment.
Never had she felt more desire to be younger, prettier, more daring. This must have been how Veronica had felt.
Her heart filled with compassion and grief. “Ye—yes. Ploughs. Very important they’re correctly deployed. Fate of the tenants’ crops and the estate’s income depends upon them.” She sniffed.
“What’s this?” His large ungloved hand covered her smaller ones, enveloping her in his warmth. “I’ve distressed you?”
She shook her head and tried to compose herself.
“Of course I have, my dear. I’ve reminded you of your lost home.”
“It is fine, sir. My current home is—is not the best, but it is mine, and I can afford to move to something better if the neighborhood deteriorates further. You needn’t worry about Robby. I will give him a good life. Not, perhaps, an aristocratic one, but—”
“Shall I tell you about myself, Miss Harris? Yes. I believe I must.” He cocked his leg on the seat so he sat sideways, and extended his hand to caress the back of her neck. The other remained squarely over her folded hands. “I am twenty-nine. The younger son of the Earl of Hackwell. The very, as it has turned out, needful spare. My mother was the second of two wives. She died not long after I was born. My father sent me off to be fostered, then off to Eton, and then to university for a very short while. I’m not much of a scholar. I landed in the army, where I found I could do something of worth.”
His mouth had grown taut and his hand had tightened over hers, so that she could feel his tension.
“Thomas, the late, great, Lord Hackwell, aside from one lengthy grand tour, was kept close under the paternal wing and learned the business of managing the earldom, standing in the House of Lords, and immersing himself in society. From the state of the accounts, it was the last activity that drew most of his interest.”
He let his fingers caress her neck, distractedly, as though the gesture comforted him, like petting a favorite hound.
Comforting to him; deliciously unsettling to her. Pleasure rippled through her at each touch. She held her breath, lest his fingers pause too long in his search for his next words.
“I can bow properly and make reasonably polite conversation, but I was never much good in a ballroom or drawing room, Miss Harris. Still, like every gentleman with a purse, I had my share of immersing myself in pleasure. Here, and on the continent.” He lapsed into a momentary dark silence. “Not so much since my return.”
“You fought at Waterloo?”
“Yes. And before, on the peninsula.”
And before that too, at every step of his motherless, fatherless life, she’d warrant. As in the children’s game she played with the boys, Annabelle drew out a hand from the pile and pressed his between hers.
And her heart skipped with a realization. Lord Hackwell had no family except Robby.
She felt his eyes fixed on her. He drew her head closer and she could smell his woodsy clean scent, so intensely male. The carriage passed by a street lamp and into a dark stretch, and she could no longer discern the outline of his face.
Her heart tingled and her breath came in short little huffs of anticipated pleasure.
“Annabelle,” he whispered. “What do they call you? Anna? Belle?”
She tensed remembering her chat with Lady Rosalyn.
“It is Belle. How very appropriate.” He kissed her hand.
“Bella,” she whispered. “And not appropriate at all. How did you learn my name?”
“Bella.” He breathed her name in a brandy-laced murmur. “The maid at the Harley Street house gave me your last name. And by the way, she worships you.”
Dear Trish. Annabelle pushed at the seat and squirmed, with no success. He still held her fast.
“I’ve found that servants know everything and talk prodigiously.” He dropped a kiss on her nose.
Annabelle bit back a disagreement and stilled. In a properly run household, gossip was squashed. The poor man had never lived in a properly run household.
His lips hovered over her and she waited. He’d kissed her nose. Perhaps he’d been aiming for her mouth and missed. She wanted one more kiss. She would be safe. In a carriage on a public street, he wouldn’t attempt to take more.
Steven held himself an inch away from her lips. Her nose had been cold, but heat radiated between them, holding them in a warm cocoon. She smelled of plain soap and faint lavender. There was nothing cloying about Miss Harris. He’d breached a line of defense with the use of the pet name. Bella. She wanted him to kiss her.
Not yet. Not yet. She was lovely, and innocent, and perfect. He was known for his quick thinking under duress, and he’d made up his mind. He would do this honorably. He was not his brother. It would not be a seduction.
“Bella, you are right that we should dispense with the dance. You are right that we should speak to the point, and so I will. I think you and I, we should wed.”
“What?” She jumped a full inch from the seat before settling back.
Annabelle has a penchant for taking in orphaned children until they can be placed elsewhere. She has two boys in her care: Thomas and two year old Robby. She is a spinster and has a small fortune of her own. She is happy with her life until the day she meets Steven Beauverde, Earl of Hackwell. Steven is a reluctant Earl and is in search of his dead brother’s son and hopes to prove the child’s legitimacy. Then he can continue with his travels as a free man. As he searches for the lost child, it seems that Steven’s new purpose is to rescue Annabelle from uncomfortably tight spots.
This is a macabre tale of lost heirs, murdered Earls, foundlings, and unlikely romance. The secrets held by the ladies in the story add much and help to move the story forward. Annabelle holds the most crucial secret, but there is an unexpected twist near the end. There is a lot of action and intrigue, as well as scenes that will have the reader sitting on the edge of their seat. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t always flow well and there was some confusion in keeping some of the characters straight. From the beginning, Steven wants to wed Annabelle, but she feels she isn’t good enough for him; he needs to marry someone who is a daughter of the ton. By the end, all the loose ends are gathered together to form a very satisfying happily ever after.
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